Survey Says: Less Is More

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Surveys have long been the standard for gathering customer insights. While it is difficult to estimate, I would guess our firm has issued hundreds of millions of surveys in our 75-year history. But we would be the first to say that it's time for a change. Surveys have both benefits and shortcomings, and now more than ever, they need to be used judiciously.

First, let's consider the positive aspects. Surveys are an efficient way to get feedback, ratings, and insights directly from customers and other stakeholders. Surveys provide a quantitative approach that can be analyzed to provide direction for company initiatives. They can be an effective method for understanding customer perceptions and sentiment, and they can be conducted over time to establish benchmarks, trends, and other comparisons. What's more, the Internet has made it easier than ever to issue them.

And yet, surveys have limitations.

The ease with which surveys can be issued has caused a glut of them; surveys are everywhere, and people have become less interested in sharing their opinion unless something really matters to them. Closely related, survey response rates are generally low and have been steadily declining, which means customer experience leaders are getting input from only a small portion of their customers. Also, because surveys have become so easy to develop, they have been misused by those who lack the know-how to construct one that will generate relevant insights.

Now for the good news: Customer experience leaders do not need to rely solely on surveys. Other ways to gather insights, measure customer behaviors, and monitor progress have evolved. Social media, text analytics, predictive analytics, and complaint systems provide rich customer insights that can't be achieved from surveys alone. And there's more data available, including financial and operational data, to bolster these methods and make customer input more rich and relevant.

So are surveys going away? No. Surveys still have a logical place in customer experience programs. But some survey practices should stop now, including the following:

• Overdependence. Over the past decade the Internet has enabled too many surveys that are too long and sent out too often. This "survey-first" mentality ultimately interferes with the creation of actionable insights.

• Repetitive relationship surveys. Too many companies feel the need to send bloated relationship surveys to customers every year. Relationship surveys are great for establishing a baseline, but they do not need to be constantly repeated—do them every other year at most.

• Gaming participation. To increase response rates, customer-facing employees are often required and even incentivized to recruit customers to respond. This results in a non-representative sample and inaccurate data.

• Asking questions we already know the answer to. This practice only makes surveys longer and makes customers wonder, "Do they really know what they are doing?"

• Asking customers irrelevant questions. Too many surveys are designed with a one-size-fits-all approach where every customer receives the same question set, regardless of their unique experiences with the company.

• Asking questions that will not prompt action. If your company is not going to act on information, then don't collect it. Again, this makes for long surveys and frustrates customers.

• Sending survey invites to every customer in the database. Using statistical sampling methodology, you can get a representative view of the customer base from a relatively small group of customers.

Notice a trend here? Surveys are too long and too frequent, and the result is a waste of our time, and that of our customers. Here are four quick ways to make surveys leaner, more targeted, and more meaningful.

1. Use pulse surveys and transaction surveys to target key areas of focus.

2. Use an adaptive design approach—different questions for different respondents—to engage customers by increasing topic relevancy and reducing survey length.

3. Leverage existing internal data to create highly targeted surveys, which will lower the burden on customers.

4. Reduce survey volume by implementing sample optimization techniques and deploying predictive analytics.

The focus on customer experience has never been stronger. And yet we tend to rely on the same methods we've always used. As we strive to optimize the customer experience by integrating new tools and methods, it’s time to significantly change the way we use surveys.

Patrick Gibbons is a principal at Walker, a leading customer experience consulting firm. You can read his blog at http://blog.walkerinfo.com/blog/engaging-the-enterprise. He can be reached at pgibbons@walkerinfo.com.

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